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COLUMN ONE

Where 'A' Is Not on the Menu

Chinese eateries in an L.A. County enclave struggle with hygiene ratings. An inspector knows the challenges unique to the cuisine.

September 28, 2005|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

After concluding a three-hour inspection, Los Angeles County health officer Siu-Man Chiu sat down at a table in a closed-off banquet room to tally the letter grade for a Chinese dim sum eatery in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley.

She noted the uncovered glass left in the food preparation area. No paper towels by the hand sink. A moldy refrigerator. Dead bugs in a plastic container used to hold pig's blood. The restaurant's current grade was a B, but as Chiu began tabulating violations, she knew it was in jeopardy. "Right away, it's borderline," she said. "What killed them was the red beans. That's six points."

The cooks had left 7 pounds of cooked red beans cooling overnight on a food preparation table to make desserts for the next day. When food is left for three hours at room temperature, bacteria growth can reach unacceptable levels.

"I hope I have a C in the car," Chiu said.

At that moment, the doors swung open. A manager told Chiu that the restaurant was so jammed with lunch-hour customers that he needed the space. Before Chiu could finish, servers with steam carts began to unload glistening spareribs and braised chicken feet onto tables filled with noisy patrons.

"Some places, you don't feel like you're making a difference," Chiu said. "Some of the violations you see again and again, and they're still making good business. Even with a C, Chinese people don't care."

C is the lowest grade a restaurant can get before being shut down. It is given when a restaurant scores 70 to 79 points out of 100. Scoring 80 to 89 points lands a restaurant a B, and an A is 90 or higher.

According to a recent study in the Journal of Environmental Health, the bold letters posted by the health department at entrances to restaurants have helped reduce hospital visits for food-borne illnesses 13% in the county since the system was introduced seven years ago.

Many diners check out the letter grade before they check out the menu.

But in the San Gabriel Valley, home to the nation's largest Chinese American community, the letter-grade system is often viewed as little more than a minor intrusion on a proud cuisine -- if diners consider it at all.

Patrons of one cafe in Monterey Park, which has repeatedly been cited for health violations and recently received a C from Chiu, are undeterred.

"I've been coming here forever," said Melvin Jin, 25, as he headed for lunch. "I'm getting the fried rice. It's quick, it's easy. Besides, my friend used to work here and he says it's OK."

Michael Ke, 30, a USC student who frequents the restaurant, is equally unconcerned. "I don't even know where they post the letters. B and C is so much gray area."

The county does not categorize restaurants by their cuisine. But, anecdotally, officials have long believed that Chinese restaurants elude A grades at a rate greater than any other type of restaurant. Consider this: 80% of the county's eateries have an A. So why is it so hard to find an authentic Chinese restaurant with anything other than a B or C?

Chinese restaurateurs argue that their kitchens simply use too many ingredients and too many cooking techniques to comply with the all the rules of health inspectors like Chiu.

They say inspectors are overly strict and that a perfect score is tantamount to destroying the flavor of their food. If a roast duck were kept at the temperature the county wants it at all times, for example, chefs say you'd be left with duck jerky, not the succulent flesh and crispy skin diners expect.

And if diners were getting sick, restaurant owners say, they wouldn't be coming to eat in such large numbers.

"We've been cooking like this for 5,000 years," said Harvey Ng, owner of Mission 261 in San Gabriel. "Why do we have a problem now?"

Ng's restaurant has a strong clientele, both local Chinese Americans and foodies drawn by the glowing write-ups in national magazines. But if he gets an A, he doesn't keep it for long.

Chiu, a Hong Kong native, doesn't buy the excuses.

She has patrolled the restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley for more than a decade, cajoling, sweet-talking and even scolding the most grizzled of Chinese chefs. But her task -- bridging a cultural divide over hygiene -- is foundering on the long lines outside eateries with B and C ratings.

*

It was 10:33 a.m. when Chiu entered the dim sum house with the red bean problem, which like several other restaurants permitted a reporter to follow Chiu through the inspection process provided their names not be used. Chiu, who stands 5 feet tall, conducts her inspections wearing casual clothes and a county ID card.

In preparation for the noon dim sum horde, four chefs worked frantically in a back room behind the kitchen, forming row upon row of miniature dumplings and pastries.

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